‘He’s not going to stop’: Ageless wonder Sharath wins his fifth CWG gold as India defend team title

Rajath Kamal Achanta is talking about the phase that ‘almost derailed’ his brother Sharath’s career. It was when the ace paddler suffered a hamstring injury in 2015, which forced him to take bed rest and put table tennis on the back burner.

“It was his toughest test. He was in Germany at the time and had to take complete bed rest. For six months he couldn’t play. He was quite depressed,” Rajath, an analyst with the national team, tells The Indian Express from Birmingham. “He used to call us and cry on the phone. All we did as a family was remind him of the obstacles he has overcome in his life and that this is just a blip. And what a comeback he has made.” Indeed.

On Tuesday, the 40-year-old stood on the top of the podium at the Commonwealth Games yet again, as India defended the team title, defeating Singapore in the final. It was Sharath’s fifth CWG gold, having won the first 16 years ago, and a reminder – if at all there was a need for it – of his longevity and ability to outfox opponents much younger than him in almost every aspect of the game, even after competing at the international level for nearly 20 years.

Sharath could not win his rubber in Tuesday’s final. The Indian lost to Clarence Chew 1-3 (7-11, 14-12, 3-11, and 9-11) as Sathiyan G and Harmeet Desai notched up important wins. But Sharath had made his biggest contribution the night before in the semifinals, where the world number 39 played remarkably to beat the world number 15 from Nigeria, Aruna Quadri, the first player from Africa to be in the top 10 of the world rankings.

Curiously, mid-way through that intense duel, a commentator made a passing comment that these would be the veteran paddler’s last Commonwealth Games. It was in direct reference to Sharath’s age. By the time the 2026 Games will be held in Victoria, Australia, he would be 44.

But then, the voice behind the mic perhaps did not factor in Sharath’s ability to defy both, age and expectations. Like he did in the semis, where the senior-most player in the Indian team did not just get the job done, but also showed a willingness to lead from the front in tight situations.

Knowing that Aruna would play two singles matches, it was imperative that India win at least one to stay in the hunt against last CWG’s finalists. Sharath, ranked 39th in the world, did not just step up but played a part in what was one of the best matches of these Games, dishing out a master-class to beat his 33-year-old Nigerian opponent.

It was typical Sharath. The world around him may be obsessed with his age, but he refuses to slow down. “He just doesn’t see an endpoint,” Sharath’s brother, Rajath, tells The Indian Express from Birmingham. “He will continue playing till his body allows him to play at the topmost level. He’s not going to stop till then.”

Sharath, his brother adds, is ‘enjoying mentoring the youngsters’ while being an integral part of the team. You could see the ‘player-coach’ role that Sharath has been playing. He’s always animated when sitting in the dugout, sharing tips, giving instructions, and shouting out words of motivation.

“Since he has no plans of coaching as of now, he feels he has to stay in the game to be able to continue mentoring youngsters and help India become a TT powerhouse,” Rajath adds.

Sharath isn’t being overambitious there. He has been the country’s flag-bearer at an international level from the moment he burst onto the scene after winning singles and team gold medals at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.

His exploits inspired a generation of paddlers who grew up admiring him, including many in the current Indian set-up. As years passed by, India – who have been laggard at an Asian and world level – began to make important strides. The medals at the Asian Championships and the Asian Games, where Sharath and G Sathiyan won a historic bronze, are a testimony to it.

Rajath, who himself was a table tennis pro till 2008, has been by Sharath’s side throughout this journey, more as a sounding board than a coach or an analyst. Or sometimes, just to ‘push him a little bit’.

“We speak as friends. There’s no coaching as such, there are just discussions. That’s why he’s comfortable having me around. Looking at the game from the technical side, I’m able to give him different perspectives,” he says. “More than anything, I think he just needs someone to push him a little bit or motivate him. That’s what I do, that’s what we do as a family and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful.”

Rajath says Sharath is conscious of the effort he needs to put in, given his age, to stay at the top. “Over the past three-four years, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, Sharath has been working tremendously on his physical and mental aspects,” Rajath says. “He knows that to stay on top of his game at 40, he has to continue working on these aspects. Skill-wise he doesn’t have to improve much because he has a wealth of knowledge having played all these years at the top level.”

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